Gabriel Jesus has fallen into the same trap at Arsenal as he did at Man City

 

Gabriel Jesus of Arsenal looks on before the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal FC at Etihad Stadium on March 31, 2024 in Manchester, England. 

All strikers are judged on their volume of goals, but few in the Premier League are critiqued more closely than Gabriel Jesus.


Jesus, who turns 27 this week, has had a puzzling career in England. On the one hand, he has won more Premier League titles than Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer and Harry Kane combined, and scored well over 100 goals in all competitions across stints at Manchester City and now Arsenal. He is the second-highest scoring Brazilian in the competition’s history with 73 and not far behind the leader Roberto Firmino (who scored 82).


And yet on the other, he is often defined more by what he doesn’t contribute than what he does. With Jesus there is always a “but”. “He’s a great player but he doesn’t score enough goals”; “He played really well today but do you remember that chance he missed?”; “He could be our starting striker but he’s always injured”.


A reason that Jesus is judged more critically than other forwards is that he was the unfortunate middleman straddling two eras of goalscoring excellence at Manchester City, coming after Sergio Aguero and before Erling Haaland.


There was a moment at the end of Arsenal’s draw with Manchester City on Sunday when the two No 9s embraced and exchanged a quick joke. A fleeting meeting of minds: the ruthless goalscorer and the selfless all-rounder. They probably would have made an excellent partnership in another era.


Another reason could be that his previous manager ultimately decided to repurpose him as a hard-working wide player and his current boss is showing an inclination for doing the same. If a coach loses faith in your penalty box instincts, so will supporters.


Jesus was the surprise name in Mikel Arteta’s XI at the Etihad given his last start in the Premier League had come away to Nottingham Forest at the end of January, picked ahead of Leandro Trossard on the left.


His 72 minutes on the pitch neatly encapsulated why he is both a manager’s dream and a source of frustration. Jesus registered three shots on goal, half of Arsenal’s total in the entire match, but didn’t manage to get any on target. His attempts were either rushed or taken too late.


However, he also played his part in nullifying City’s attacking threat, shuttling dutifully into position just in front of left-back Jakub Kiwior who had been targeted early on. His work-rate, which is undoubtedly one of his key strengths, was immense, as Gary Neville highlighted afterwards.


“It was effectively a 4-4-2 that Mikel Arteta deployed,” Neville said on Sky Sports. “The two wide players were off the scale in their doubling up.


“When I played as a right-back playing against a Marc Overmars or a David Ginola or an Arjen Robben, you can’t handle them one-on-one on your own. You do need the support of your wide player to come back and make it difficult. Jesus and [Bukayo] Saka were absolutely outstanding in that respect today. The work they put in for their team was brilliant.”


Jesus also reflected on his role afterwards.


“The way I am, I try everything I can to help my team,” he said.


“It doesn’t matter where I play, I always try to do my best. I did it [against City]. I was very deep, normally I am not that deep, but I had to play as the winger.


“I think I help my team playing like this. And then also, when we there [in attack], I created some chances. I could do a little bit better, but football is like this sometimes.”


Jesus’ industry and selflessness are admirable traits and explain why he is so popular with managers and teammates. He has achieved more than most footballers could ever dream of but still plays with the drive and determination of someone taking a trial knowing that it will either make or break their dreams for good.


Pressing is a pre-requisite in the modern game and Jesus is one of the best forwards at closing down defenders. The problem arises when that becomes your defining trait. If Arteta persists with selecting Jesus out wide rather than through the middle his transformation from centre forward to disciplined winger will be complete. In effect, he will be a deluxe Jordan Ayew.


The frustrating thing is that Jesus has shown glimpses of being the goalscoring pressing demon that Arteta craves. He began his Arsenal career with a bang, providing both goals and industry. An antidote to Alexandre Lacazette, who by the end offered neither.


It would be unfair to overlook the injuries that have contributed towards Jesus’ diminished status in Arsenal’s attacking hierarchy.


The knee injury that he suffered while playing for Brazil in a dead rubber group game against Cameroon at the World Cup 16 months ago saw him miss three months of last season and has had a knock-on effect this campaign too.


Jesus has missed 31 of Arsenal’s 89 matches since joining in 2022 due to five separate injuries, four of which have been to his knees.


Such setbacks have been timed awfully too. Jesus provided a goal and assist against Sevilla in October and repeated the trick at Forest in January, only to then spend a month out after both fixtures. Arteta has been forced to rejig his frontline to compensate for Jesus’ absence and now, when everyone is fit, he is an afterthought.


The summer transfer window looks set to be a pivotal one. A lack of a consistent, goalscoring No 9 has hardly been an issue for Arsenal who have scored more goals than any other Premier League side, but buying a new striker seems like the most obvious priority in the summer transfer window.


Sporting Lisbon’s Viktor Gyokeres is fast becoming the fans’ preferred choice off the back of a stellar season in Portugal which has yielded 36 goals. Ivan Toney is also expected to be available with Brentford already securing Igor Thiago as a replacement.


If that transpires, Jesus finds himself at another career crossroads. Stick it out at Arsenal and accept that his future will be served out wide? Or have one last crack as a starting centre-forward elsewhere? The next two months will determine which path he takes.

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